Odd is a safe harbor for Tim Burton, a filmmaker who flirted with normal for the first time ever in Big Eyes and got turned down.
Burton retreats to his sanctuary of strangeness with Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, with accent on the next-to-last word. Based on a YA novel by former Sarasota County resident Ransom Riggs, the material is right up Burton's dark corridor, surreal and nostalgically scary.
This time, however, Burton's manner is changed, not drastically or consistently but more controlled, making strangeness the story's accessory rather than its purpose. He seems inspired by this material for the first time in years, in a creative vein where he finds the most satisfaction.
The feeling wears off as Jane Goldman's adapted screenplay wears on, altering Riggs' characters and embellishing the plot with an ill-fitting role for Samuel L. Jackson. But for a while it's fun sensing Burton finding his second or third wind.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children concerns Florida teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), unaware that he's "genetically peculiar," giving him an as-yet-unknown supernatural gift. Like boy wizards and futuristic saviors before him, Jake's destiny unfolds one fantastic step at a time, leading to a children's home in England overseen by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).
Good thing we know Burton filmed his Florida sequences around Tampa Bay in 2015 because it's tropics anonymous on screen. A Florida state line sign on a condo'd gulf beach is Burton's establishing shot, Gandy Bridge the driving route to anywhere, with Belleair Bluffs and Sun City Center the neighborhoods of optical choice. For nearly 15 minutes, we're the humdrum-sunny contrast to darker circumstances coming.
We play Jake's nondescript hometown, living with his inattentive parents (Chris O'Dowd, Kim Dickens) and devoted, demented grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp, the movie's standout performer). Abe always captivated Jake with tales, possibly ravings, of paranormally gifted children met during World War II.
Late one evening, Jake discovers Abe's home ransacked and the old man dying in nearby woods, both eyes plucked from their sockets. With his last breaths, Abe tells Jake to find the children's home, to warn them and Miss Peregrine of impending danger. So far, so creepy.
Overseas, Abe's past becomes clearer, part of a time-continuum ploy Riggs devised, like Groundhog Day rebooted to World War II. Miss Peregrine saves her children daily in a 24-hour time loop before German bombs can destroy them. There's a wistful fatalism to that conceit and Green's portrayal that is effective. The children are largely exposed as one-trick oddities with the exception of Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a worthwhile crush for Jake whose ability to control air leads to the movie's most special effects.
The film's aimless, otherworldly charm is intruded upon by Jackson's role as Barron, a shape-shifting peculiar who broke bad, taking a platoon of others with him. They're Hollowgasts, murderous insectoids with tentacle tongues and a taste for eyeballs, signaling the movie's eventual slide into CGI-stoked resolution. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is capped by an epilogue hinting a lack of hope for sequels, despite three more books in print. Yet there's enough that's good about Burton's movie to make the rest tolerable. Which is pretty normal for him these days.
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